He may be one of the busiest professional runners in the world, but that isn't stopping Lopez Lomong from taking a few classes at NAU to finish his degree.
The Sudan-native and former "Lost Boy" is back in Flagstaff to graduate and receive his diploma in Hotel Management. Lomong's ambition is to build his own hotel in the war-torn country where he grew up.
Lomong wants to help create a stable environment and have a centralized location where people can feel safe.
"I want the tourists to be able to come to Sudan and know about my country, know about my culture, eat my food and all those things," Lomong said. "It would be cool to have Americans come into Sudan and stay there."
He has three classes remaining but plans to finish the degree next fall because he'll take the spring semester off to race in Europe. After that, he'll come back to Flagstaff and receive his diploma, all while training for the 2012 London Olympics. He also promised to bring home whatever medal he wins back to the Skydome.
"This is my home and where all my dreams came true," Lomong said. "I want to be called an (alumnus) -- that's the most important thing. It's not just that I came here, ran and (won) the national titles. All those things will go away, but the degree will never go away."
Lomong doesn't regret leaving college before he finished his degree. He felt he had to turn pro after the 2007 cross country season in order to be part of the American 2008 Beijing Olympic team. There, he was chosen to carry the American flag during the opening ceremonies.
"I didn't expect to be given the opportunity," Lomong said. "I was like, 'Why me? Why not LeBron James or Kobe Bryant and all those guys who wanted to be a flagbearer?'
"It was so cool, a little kid from Sudan who went to NAU and ended up at the top of the world."
Aside from taking classes, Lomong will keep himself busy while training at altitude. He called Flagstaff his "home base," a place where he's the most comfortable and can focus on training.
"Flagstaff is a mecca of running," he said. "It's 7,000 feet, it's flat, you recover well and it's a peaceful environment."
Lomong was a two-time National Champion for the Lumberjacks (1,500-meters, Outdoors, 2007; 3,000-meters, Indoors, 2007), a five-time All-American, a 12-time Big Sky Conference individual champion and holder of five school records at NAU.
He finished his 2009 professional season with personal bests in both the 1,500m (3:32.94) and mile (3:53.35).
Cross country and track and field coach Eric Heins is happy to have one of his star pupils back. When Heins arrived as the cross country coach in the fall of 2007, he inherited Lomong and David McNeill, who was a freshman at the time. Lomong's success that season helped boost the Jacks to a fourth-place finish at nationals, and he turned pro shortly thereafter. But in their short time together, the coach and star runner developed a strong rapport.
"Having those two my first year was pretty awesome," Heins said. "It can be a little bit intimidating when you walk into a situation like that. But as I got to (know) both Lopez and David, they're both awesome people and really make you feel welcome and listen to you."
Heins said that the cross country team has some volunteer coaching positions available, so Lomong can hang around and support his fellow classmates. McNeill faces a similar offer when his collegiate career ends after this cross country season.
"Having those two as coaches would be awesome," Heins said, though he wouldn't say who's the better runner. Lomong has better middle distance times while McNeill broke Lomong's 3k school record.
"I'll have them line up at 2,000 meters and let them race and that'll decide it," Heins said.
Lomong is also directly involved with the production of his own biopic, part of which will be filmed in Flagstaff, which is scheduled to be released in August 2012 to coincide with the Olympics. He's helping the writers work on the script and has the authority to edit details if he doesn't feel they are representative of his life.
Although he doesn't get to choose the actor that plays himself, Lomong still has a suggestion.
"He's got to be fit and ready to go," Lomong said.
Jacob May can be reached at email@example.com or 556-2257.